As our nation shines a light this month on the innumerable contributions of Black people to the United States, lessons abound around the power of community, creativity, persistence and, especially, resilience in the face of relentless challenge. For people of all races, it is a time to recognize what most often goes unrecognized and to celebrate how diverse voices enrich all of us. For white people, it also provides a critical reminder to expand your strategies for creating more inclusive spaces and true belonging in your professional and personal life.
A quick history
Black History Month was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a historian known as the “father of Black history” who helped establish the field of African American studies. His goal was for people from all cultures to understand and discuss the Black experience and to inspire Black people with a deep understanding of what their ancestors had overcome. “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” Woodson said.
The month of February was chosen for its celebration because it coincides with the birthdates of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass who both worked to end slavery in the United States. Although the movement grew and was celebrated on many college campuses by the late 1960s, Black History Month was only first officially recognized in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. In 1986, Congress finally passed National Black History Month into law.
Why is it so important?
Black History Month, like Black history itself, is important for people of all races and cultures. According to the World Economic Forum, “This month-long observance in the U.S. and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change.”
By setting aside time to increase understanding of Black history, illuminate ongoing inequities and stimulate actions to drive greater progress, Black History Month draws on both remembering and inspiration to drive change. A few of the critical attributes of our celebration of Black History Month are that it:
- Shines a light on the historical and contemporary achievements of Black Americans, the myriad ways they have shaped and built the United States and their increasing impact across a diverse range of professions and industries. “Black History Month remains relevant because it sets aside time for us to learn and reflect upon the ways African American history highlights the ideals and failures of the U.S. experiment with democracy,” wrote Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University.
- Celebrates the incredible persistence of Black people in the face of ongoing persecution. “Black History Month is an important opportunity for celebration, affirmation, and focused attention within Black communities that are doing the daily work of asserting our humanity,” said Philip S.S. Howard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies at McGill University.
- Centers Black culture, at least for a moment, in a dominant white culture where often what is considered “normal” or “standard” is based on white culture.
- Provides opportunities for young Black Americans to better understand the history of their ancestors, develop a sense of the progress made to date and inspire them to imagine and strive for greater progress in the future.
- Helps deepen white people’s understanding of the lived experience of Black Americans and the ongoing struggle for equity. While Black History month celebrates achievements and progress, it also brings to the fore the ongoing need to address prejudice, bias and unequal treatment that Black Americans continue to experience in their professional and personal lives today. It also helps to highlight the unearned privilege white Americans continue to enjoy at the expense of others.
- Reminds us that we need to do much more to create inclusive environments in the workplace and throughout our lives so that everyone can experience a true sense of belonging and can contribute to their full potential.
Celebrating Black History Month in the workplace provides an important opportunity for leaders to deepen and expand the conversations already happening around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and to take a more active role in driving the kind of change that will be truly worth honoring.